On the joy of getting something right



Last week I had a particularly bad day at work.  I went to a meeting where just about every behaviour I warn students about was on display.  So, no-one (except idiotic me) was prepared to stand up to the leader, the decision was made to do something that we had done several times before which had always failed, and there was a collective delusion about the organisation we work for and how prestigious it is.  This is known as corporate narcissism – when you fall in love with your organisation and convince yourself that it is so great that nothing but success will be had.  It almost always leads to your competitors overtaking you.  So, decisions were made based on what we always do which looks really logical in short term but actually endangers our long-term prospects.  I couldn’t quite believe how people were behaving.  I have a bit of a reputation in my department for being right.  This is not because I am psychic, but just because I have been around the block many times and have seen it all and its consequences before.  If you do x then you will get y.  No-one wants to hear this, of course, and so no-one wanted to hear my point of view and I left the meeting wondering why I had been invited, and hoping I wasn’t asked again.  Despite the fact that I think I had a valid point, I left the meeting feeling stupid, naive, gullible, childish and a fool.

So, what a fantastic relief to make the small panel at the top of this post.  It took less than half an hour.  I absolutely knew what I wanted to do.  I had the materials to hand.  I found some eggs to trace as I find egg shapes peculiarly hard to draw.  The Bernina worked first time.  So, the speed was pretty much a function of preparation rather than skill.  The end result, however, pleased me very much.  Those of you who read this blog occasionally will know that I like sparkle, deep rich colours and textures, trimmings, embellishment and more meaning more.  But this piece has a very restrained palette and simple stitching and that makes it work in a naive folklore-ish way.  This is a new way of working for me, and I like the contrast with my more ornate stuff.

But what I really wanted to think about was the sheer joy of having an idea for something and then sitting down and being able to do it, to know how to do something, to be confident in my ability, to have a clear ‘voice’ in the work, to be able to initiate and then execute something really well.  I experienced real joy in making.  I felt a visceral excitement, and this was heightened by the previous week’s experience of being stupid and worthless.

When I call myself an academic quilter, it is usually because I use my work to think about academic, cerebral things, but my very brief sewing experience this morning consolidated a great deal of what I know about group theory and decision making, and about strategy, organisational behaviour and leadership.  This is going to sound a bit pious, but organisational politics and dysfunctional organisations are death.  Creativity is life.

This is the finished panel after I added the writing:



Sorry about the gap


I’m very sorry that I haven’t posted much this month.  Oddly May-July is a really busy time for me and a lot of academics.  We have exams, exam marking, exam boards, external examining of other people’s exams, seeing lots of fed-up students, doing course reviews, getting stuff ready for  conferences and so on.  So not much time for anything.

But I thought I would share this quotation I found in the London Review of Books.  It’s from Charles Collingwood, who was a British philosopher, now slightly out of fashion.  It’s taken from a new biography of him in which he talks about what he learned about what constitutes a work of art as he was growing up:

I learned to think of a picture not as a finished product exposed for the attention of virtuosi, but the visible record, lying about the house, of an attempt to solve a definite problem in painting, so far as the attempt had gone.  I learned what some critics and aestheticians never know to the end of their lives that no ‘work of art’ is ever finished, so that in that sense of the phrase there is no such thing as a ‘work of art’ at all.  Work ceases upon the picture or manuscript, not because it is finished, but because sending-in day is at hand, or because the printer is clamorous for copy, or because ‘I am sick of working at this thing’ or ‘I can’t see what more I can do to it.’

My first thought on reading this is that it is a contribution to the perennial art vs craft debate.  I can tell when my craft pieces are quilted by and large.  There is a grid to fill in with quilting and once you have done that it is fairly easy to decide that something is finished.  The puzzle with its one right answer has been solved.  But the art pieces I make are different.  They are really never finished.  My Starbucks quilt still isn’t finished now, and I was making it a good ten years ago.  I could always do a bit more with the art pieces.  I am not quite sure how this fits with my contention that our work talks to us and tells us when it’s finished.  Maybe it tells us when that’s enough.  I also wonder how this fits with the reception theorists, and my hero, Walter Benjamin’s contention that meaning is immanent and that it changes depending on context and the spirit of the age, so we can’t ever understand Shakespeare in the same way his contemporary audiences understood him because we don’t have the same mentalite, to use the technical term.  The thing isn’t finished and neither is its meaning ever fixed.

I really thought that there was some wisdom in the idea that having to have something ready for an exhibition is common stopping point, or we get tired of things (which is a problem in academic writing when we are constantly reworking things we are no longer all that interested in as we have to take account of reviewers’ comments), or sometimes we just get sick of working on something and shove it in a drawer.  Sometimes when we come back to those suspended things they surprise us with how good they are.

The idea that he starts with that works of art are an attempt (usually abandoned) to solve a problem was compelling.  I often work with the ‘what if?’ question which is the cornerstone of a lot of creativity techniques: what happens if I paint this, what happens if I put the hot air gun on this, what happens if I stitch this from the back?  But I also address bigger problems: how can I say what I want to say about corporate excess in cloth?  How can I express a brand in patchwork?  How can I upset our ideas about what an academic text is, but still produce something intelligible?  People like the American Pragmatist John Dewey have remarked that artists and scientists aren’t that far apart in what they do.  And Collingwood went on to to remark that the work of natural scientists was never finished either – all knowledge is temporary as Popper would have it.  One theory replaces another eventually.  On a much more domestic scale, I can never resist saying to the dentist, oh, that’s the fashion now is it, when they give you the latest piece of advice.  Or like we are beginning to hear that low fat diets are bad for you.

So, quite a lot of positive if exhausting ideas about how art and knowledge works as I toddle off to address a group of PhD students tomorrow!

Anyway, I do have some new work which I will be posting about.  And sorry for the gap.


Collingwoood quotation taken from: Jonathan Ree (2014) ‘A Few Home Truths’ London Review of Books, vol 36, 112, 19 June,  pp. 13-16; 13.






Learning Medieval Embroidery at the Ashmolean


I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that there were several things I wanted to blog about: drawing armour at the Wallace Collection, and drawing zentangles,  then there was the Kevin Coates exhibition and the workshop I did at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford on medieval embroidery with Tanya Bentham.  I’ve done the zentangles and the armour  and now it’s the workshop.

The workshop was held in conjunction with the exhibition which was of a bestiary of jewels associating animals with certain people such as Flaubert’s parrot and Montaigne’s cat and so on.  So in the workshop we were invited to take a fantastical animal from our imaginations or a manuscript and combine it with a person we would like to make it for.  We were also learning to do laid and couched work, which was the embroidery technique used on the Bayeux Tapestry.

I did the course because it was taught by Tanya Bentham.  We have been in touch for a couple of years via our blogs but we had not met, so I was in a bit of trepidation in case we did not get on.  But, Tanya turned out to be fantastic.  She is a very good and well-prepared teacher, and the workshop was an absolute bargain as we not only got the tuition but a generous supply of all the materials, and the frame, and the most delicious biscuits imaginable, including some raspberry macarons that will live long in the memory.  Plus she gave me a big bag of beads.  Fantastic.

Anyway, I decided against one of the bestiary animals as I was totally enchanted by a lovely unicorn jewel that Coates had made for his wife.  I made a sketch of it:


It was a very beautiful piece set with various precious stones.  I decided I wanted to do a unicorn because  I had done some work on the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries in Paris for a scholarly piece of work.  Although unicorns now seem to be viewed as horses with a horn, I know from the Medieval Historian, that originally they were as much like goats as horses and often had beards and a lion’s tail, like the one in the following zentangle:


This is a technique in a second book on zentangling that I bought, in which you define an outline using the patterns and the  silhouette is a sort of negative space.  Here’s a detail:


I decided to combine the unicorn with my dog, Harry’s ludicrously fluffy tale.  Here’s the working sketch:


And here’s the shocking zentangle of a unicorn I did while waiting for my tutorial with Tanya:


My problem as with the first drawing is that the unicorn is white, and the wool fabric we were embroidering onto was also white.  I decided to do my couching in blue and also to have a blue tale and blue outline so that the white creature would stand out:


I  thought it gave a sort of fairytale or heraldic flavour to the piece, like the books of hours rather than the Bayeux Tapestry or Lutrell Psalter, which were our main inspirations:


It is a very rough piece of work and not up to Tanya’s standards but I really enjoyed doing it.  The outline is in split stitch, as is the beard, and all the wools are dyed with natural dyes and so are authentic.  I quite liked the discipline of a small colour range, and I forced myself not to add a bead or a gold thread, even though I was desperate to put some sparkle in his eye.  He is probably about four or five inches high.

I also enjoyed doing some sketches.  This one, which reflects my current interest in armour, is a rescue on a terrible drawing:



I found them quite compelling to draw:


And enjoyed working with the head as a design like the original inspiration:


I think a bit of watercolour wash really lifts these drawings.

So this was a fantastic workshop and I really learned a lot.  The technique is easy in theory, but it takes a lot of practice, I expect, to get to the point where you can do it as evenly and accurately as Tanya.  If you want to see how it should be done, check her website Opus Anglicanum

What I did on Sunday

Well, I should have been working at the day job, but for some reason I have the big Urge to Create yesterday and so I gave in.

I finished the last of the little Laura panels just after lunch and I went up to my workroom and thought about what to do with them.  I was going to make them into a long band to use as a border on the big Laura Ashley quilt, but in the end I thought that they looked better as a mini quilt in their own right.  Here they are roughly laid out against a piece of fleece on the sofa.  These were just planning photos to help me to remember the placement of the panels, so they aren’t top quality:


I intended to stitch the panels together and then do some embroidered arches to frame them, as in this paper mock-up in my sketchbook:


But when I put the quilt together – very simply with two lines of topstitching in a blending in colour – it soon became apparent that the quilt with all the beads would be too heavy to move under the sewing machine – it would result in pointy stitching instead of smooth curves.  So I would need to think of something else.

The background fabric is a really tough upholstery Laura Ashley fabric which limits choices.  I thought about applique-ing on the arches over black tulle, but it didn’t read clearly enough against the gold background.  I was hoping to use some patterns from all the zentangling I have been doing, and this worked on the stitch sample I made, but again would not have been feasible with so much embellishment weighing the whole thing down.  So, I began to experiment with drawing onto the cloth:


Again, this is a working photo to see how this ‘reads’ from a distance.  What I decided I liked was the little highlights of white which the pattern provided, so I experiment with working with that:


You can see this on the left.


I extended it a bit to get an idea of what a whole row would look like.  I think it could look great.  So I thought about drawing directly onto the quilt top.  The only problem with that would be drawing against seam lines which would stop the flow of the pen.  Which leaves cutting arches from another piece of fabric and applique-ing them down.  This is fine, except that every archway will have to be different, which will look fantastic – I really like irregularity in these things – but it will take forever to draw up and cut out!  At this point the light was going, so I left it and decided to sleep on it.  Assuming I go back and finish it, it does mean that I will have something for the Bristol Quilters exhibition, which is a relief.

Linda Miller at Bristol Quilters


At Bristol Quilters last night we had a really great talk by Linda Miller who is a professional embroiderer.  It was particularly interesting because she talked as much about her business as about her embroidery.  I loved her dogs in coats which featured in several pieces, but I was also interested in listening to her talking about pricing her work, working with card companies and galleries, getting commissions, bearing to part with work, having to sell to people you don’t like because you have to pay the mortgage and so on.  She talked about getting support and working in a collective with other artists, and setting up a studio.

Her work is charming – which is an overused word, but I think it fits, in the sense that her personal vision is enchanting and draws you into her world.  I liked her unusual braided edging and the fact that she doesn’t straighten the work but allows it to distort following the tension in the stitching.  Plus I thought she was absolutely right when she said that you have to give up any idea of control over your work and that you have to let it be what it wants to be.

I would recommend her to any stitching group.

What I did at the weekend


I had a great day on Sunday after a not very thrilling week.  I have been working on a new series of small pieces as part of my big Laura Ashley project.  I am making some little Saint Lauras as part of my work in completing my large St Laura quilt, which I thought I had finished until I put it on the wall and it really does look undercooked.

I’ll post more about the work as I go along.  One of my really favourite bloggers writes about work in progress and shows the stages of her pieces, and I think I might do that with this group.  Her blog is fabulous – although it’s not for the faint-hearted.  She is an embroiderer, dressmaker, jeweller, silver smith and on and on.  Anyway, here are some pages from my workbook to be going on with:

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Also featured, my very unlovely worktable!

Second of my touch pieces


When I first started the Walter Benjamin ‘Destructive Character’ piece, I thought I would do something around deconstructed stitching, which went through a bit of a vogue in the 1990s.  Basically it’s a piling up of stitches which you then cut into, and sometimes put some gesso or paint over.  This is the three stages demonstrated on this piece:


In this example, I have used a really thick thread, and on the cut stitches on the extreme right I have put on one of the specialist artists pastes, this one with pumice in it.  There are a few colonial knots thrown in.

It is another piece where I work with rubbish.  The strawberry panel is made with layers of cheap tissue that you get when they wrap up something in a shop with a photocopy underneath the final layer.  It is all put together with dilute pva glue.  The photocopy was tinted with coloured pencils before the final layer was glued on.  That’s why it is slightly glossy.

I am not that thrilled with this piece.  It does demonstrate the technique, but the elements don’t go together.  The pumice part has nothing to do with the strawberry.  I might add in some more strawberry elements when I get home, but at least the technique part at the bottom works.

First of my touch pieces




I am currently working on a series of touch pieces for my talk at SCOS at the weekend.  I can’t cart the book itself all the way to Poland so I am making the equivalent of a touch table.  This one is playing with Benjamin’s interest in scavenging.  Everything in it, apart from the thread, would be in landfill if not recycled into this little panel.  The pink panels are an experiment stamping fluid acrylic onto shocking pink tissue paper.  I put some acrylic wax over the top to make it stronger and them machined it down in a spiky pattern to match the bare trees.  The ‘sky’ is two pieces of acrylic voile hand stitched onto some cotton wadding and the bottom part is some newsprint which accidentally got an animal stripe pattern transferred when I was making some plastic (bag) paper with a hot iron.  Then embroidered with black perle cotton to echo the branches.


I might do a bit more to this when I get home and have access to more stuff – so for instance I would like to add a pale winter sun.  I like it more than I thought I would given that it was made as a throwaway piece.  I think it’s worth finishing properly.

Our love is here to stay




I have finally more or less finished this artist’s book on Walter Benjamin’s ‘The Destructive Character’.  I am mightily relieved as the conference paper is a week on Sunday and I have run out of time to do any more on it.  I really love the finished piece, and feel very sure that it is not the last thing I will do on the subject – I have just found Susan Sontag’s essay on Benjamin which needs to be worked in, for example.  So, this is all a bit in haste, but it is what I have been working on.  I can’t take the book with me because it is enormous and heavy, so I have had to make some touch pieces which I will put in a later blog.  I had a year to do this, and here we are – right down to the wire, as they say.  So here are my not very brilliant pictures.  I don’t have time for much of a commentary, but I hope you just like looking at the photos.

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I absolutely love working with Benjamin’s ideas, in fact, he is my unlikely muse.  So, even though this mammoth project is over, our love is here to stay.


Walter Benjamin Artist’s Book – Progress


I blogged recently about the panel to make up the cover for the Walter Benjamin ‘Destructive Character’ artist’s book.  I have now finished the first half of the panel, the part based on the crazy patchwork tradition.  This is what I started with:


and this is how it’s finished:


I really enjoyed learning some of the composite crazy quilt embroidery stitches although I am not great at them.  I also loved putting a bagful of beads on as I haven’t done much of this sort of work recently.

I now have to make the stripped down top to this piece, and make the title, possibly on primed canvas.  I have bought some of those ready gessoed boards you can buy to mount it over.  I like doing coptic binding so I might use that to put the pages in, or possibly a loose Japanese stab binding I’ve found.  But I only have a fortnight to get the whole thing done – and, of course, I have had a whole year.